It is in this broader and highly dynamic context which the increasingly relevant role of public engagement in science and technology is to be placed.
A new social contract between science and society
The shift from the modern to the so-called post-modern society and the concurrent tendencies occurring in the processes of scientific knowledge production are largely modifying science-society relationships. For a long time, such relationships were limited and institutionally well-regulated (the ivory tower model). Now they are at the same time more intense and complex because of the impacts on science of the shift toward post-modern society, such as:
- Decreasing authoritativeness and social recognition of scientific institutions often driving to anti-science attitudes and pseudo-scientific beliefs
- The ever-stronger connection between science and ethical and policy issues, triggering and feeding social tensions on controversial issues and “public battle” among experts
- The increasing sensitiveness of the public towards science-related risks
- People’s decreasing trust in scientific institutions leading to a growing demand for accountability and transparency
- The need for science institutions to increasingly demonstrate their social and economic usefulness to citizens as taxpayers.
All these factors are plunging science into a paradoxical condition: it is increasingly important for our life and our future but at the same time it is more and more socially weaker.. Thus, reframing science-society relationship appears to be necessary. It is not by chance that some scholars are speaking about the need for a new social contract allowing science and society to regulate anew their interactions and mutual responsibilities.
Creating new bridges
It is precisely this paradoxical situation that shows why public engagement is important now.
Different definitions have been given to public engagement. Taken in its broadest sense, public engagement is the main approach available for creating new bridges between science and society and dismantling those that are no longer used, adapt or effective. This also implies for research institutions and other stakeholders to commit themselves in looking for new ways for cooperating, thus accelerating as far as possible the shift from one-way science communication models to multiple-actor public engagement models.
Making up for lost time
However, if the process started, it is still far from being fully developed. In Europe, to different extent, a delay can be observed in establishing policies in support of PE. In general, European research institutions are not yet really committed to PE, or commit only occasionally.
Certainly, this delay has been also due to the economic crisis of 2007-2008, which has also remarkable impacts on European higher education systems, with the effect of absorbing for a period of time the interest and worries of research managers, researchers and policy makers concerned with science and technologies.
However, the poor and uneven development of PE across European countries and research organisations is above all due to the limited awareness about what is really at stake with the development of public engagement in science and technology. In general, researchers and university managers still get confused about why and how to get involved with public engagement or, at maximum, think to public engagement simply as a new element to add in the life of the organisation. Few of them view PE as something destined to largely modify the management of science, thus altering the business-as-usual approach to manage research, teaching and decision-making processes.